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WorkChoices and liberty

By Mark Christensen - posted Thursday, 20 December 2007


Writing in The Age (December 3, 2007) Bill Kelty offered the Liberal Party some compelling and unaffected advice, post its federal election trauma. His political adversaries should get over the loss and reconnect with the two great impulses of its existence - belief in individual freedom and fighting for liberty.

While the former ACTU secretary is right about facing up to reality, he fails to identify the hardest truth of all. The one Kevin Rudd has exploited to such great effect.

The community doesn’t want to hear it, but WorkChoices was, more than anything else, concerned with such glorious notions of liberty. Yes, it sought to improve employment prospects and make the economy more competitive. Some on the conservative side of politics doubtless also saw the changes as a means of ending union power.

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But at their most profound - the place Kelty is harking to - the Howard government IR reforms envisioned a world where employees and employers would be free to adopt labour arrangements that worked best for their particular circumstances.

The Liberal Party couldn’t paint this big picture. Despite the propaganda, free market principles aren’t a cold, heartless policy setting. Their shunning of state-sponsored paternalism actually commends a resounding faith in humanity.

Support for government managing industrial relations is generally assumed to be about a “fair go”, when in fact it’s anything but. Which is more Australian: the benefit of the doubt or demanding regulation because it’s presumed the other bloke is going to screw you?

The country can vote to shy away from the freedom ideal that lies at the heart of micro-economic reform, but let’s at least be honest - unlike the American psyche - about the compromise that is being made when we opt for perceived safety in favour of something more profound.

Reality must be divorced from the present wishful thinking. The Liberals should continue to espouse the principles behind WorkChoices while separately acknowledging it’s legitimate to countenance concessions if and when we lack the nerve to do what is needed. In this way, the ideological and practical veracity of the free market can be maintained for all to appreciate.

It’s generally not understood, for example, that the only economic philosophies available to us are mutually exclusive. Either one believes government intervention can achieve success or there is an acceptance it can’t. This all-or-nothing scenario sounds harsh, but it’s nonetheless true. The idea of “some” IR flexibility is a theoretical nonsense.

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Each-way policy betting is also impractical. The alternative economic extremity of communism has failed because it’s impossible for government representatives to understand and thus control the inter-related commercial relationships that together constitute a living, breathing economy. The intent of IR commissioners and other regulators, while honourable, suffers the same shortcomings unforeseen by Lenin and Trotsky.

If the state cannot manage the economy as a whole, why do we think for a moment things will be different for selected aspects such as industrial relations? When previously in power, the ALP accepted it could not second-guess the price of the national currency and that legislated protections were futile. Yet it now claims to be able to understand the equally dynamic relationship between workers and their employers.

The “third way” between empowering the individual and enforcing collective decision-making in the name of the public interest is unsustainable. All that has been achieved in terms of economic prosperity is due to our moving towards one extreme. Halt the laissez faire policy trend and progress must stall. Moreover, turning away from our true aspirations will inflict a cultural malaise no amount of prosperity will overcome.

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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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